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Ethan Hunter needed a drink. Bad.
After five hours of complicated surgery his legs ached like a bitch and finding the bottom of a bottle was the only sure-fire way to soothe the fiery path of hot talons tearing from thigh to calf.
It was that or painkillers, and Ethan refused to be dependent on drugs.
'We're heading to Drake's, Ethan,' a voice with a thick Scottish brogue said from behind. 'Why don't you join us?'
A sudden silence descended into the male change-room as Ethan turned around to find Jock, the anaesthetist from the surgery, addressing him. He looked around at the four others, who'd all been chatting merrily until now. Clearly none of them were keen on having Ethan join them.
Jock didn't look particularly enthused either.
Not that he could blame them. The longer the surgery had taken, the more his legs had ached, and the more tense and terse he'd become. Accidentally dropping an instrument had been the last straw, and kicking it childishly across the floor until it clanged against the metallic kickboard of the opposite wall hadn't exactly been his most professional moment.
He hated prima donna surgeons, but his simmering frustration at his shot concentration and the pain had bubbled over at that point.
Even so, he didn't need or want their duty invitation, no matter how much he craved some alcoholic fortification. Ethan was just fine with drinking alone.
In fact, he preferred it.
'No thanks, Jock,' he said. 'I've got to get back to the clinic.'
Which was true. There was an important case file he needed to familiarise himself with on Leo's desk. And some classy fine malt whisky to go with it.
He looked around at his colleagues. 'Thanks for your help in there, everyone. Good job.'
There was a general murmuring of good-nights and then Ethan was alone. He sank gratefully onto the bench seat just behind him, easing his legs, muscles screaming, out in front of him. He shut his eyes as the pain lessened considerably and sat there for long minutes as the rush of relief anaesthetised the lingering tension in the rest of his body.
It felt so damn good to be off them!
But he couldn't sit here forever. Work called. He reluctantly opened his eyes and reached for his clothes.
The black cab pulled up in front of the imposing white Victorian facade on Harley Street. Like the many clinics and physician's offices that called Harley Street home, the Hunter Clinic was as exclusive as the address implied.
Ethan's father, celebrated plastic surgeon James Hunter, had founded it over three decades ago, and it had gone on to become world-renowned as much for its humanitarian and charity work with civilian and military casualties of war as for its A-list clients.
Thanks largely to his brother Leo.
Certainly not thanks to their father and the scandal that had not only resulted in his premature death through a heart attack but had almost caused the closure of the clinic over a decade ago.
Again, thanks to Leo's drive and commitment, it had been avoided.
Not that Ethan gave a rat's about any of that right at this moment. Thinking about his father and his previously rocky relationship with his brother always got things churned up inside, and tonight he was barely coping with standing upright.
Ethan paid the driver and hauled himself out of the back through sheer willpower alone. The only thing that kept him putting one foot in front of the other was the lure of Leo's whisky.
Ethan grimaced as he limped through the corridors to his brother's office, holding on to the polished wooden handrails for added support. His badly mangled ankle and knee felt ready to give at any second, and the effort it took for his muscles to support them was bringing him out in a sweat.
Ethan wished he hadn't neglected his physio so much, or ignored LizzieLeo's wife and his ex-home visit nursewhen she'd scolded him about not using his stick. He hated the damn stick, and the questions it inevitably aroused, and he didn't have time in his busy schedule for the intensive physio requiredbut at this moment in time he was prepared to embrace both.
Not that it would help him now.
But what would help beckoned just beyond Leo's door, and Ethan had never been so glad to get to his brother's office. It had once belonged to his father, and he'd used to hate being summoned here by the great man himself, in a rage over some imagined slight or other, as his father had slowly spiralled downwards into alcoholic depression.
Thankfully those days were gone, but it was pleasing to know that a decanter of finest whisky could still be found within the walls of this officeeven if it was rarely touched.
The last ten paces to the bookshelves behind Leo's desk were agony, but ultimately worth it as Ethan wrapped his hand around the satisfyingly full decanter. He splashed two fingers of amber liquid into a glass tumbler that sat nearby and threw it straight back.
Searing heat hit the back of his throat and almost instantly tentacles of warmth unfurled outwards from his belly. He poured himself another one and threw that back too, enjoying how the spread of heat pushed back the relentless creep of pain.
A third glass was poured, but before Ethan drank it he picked up both it and the decanter in one hand and reached for the back of the plush leather swivel chair with the other.
Leaning heavily against the solid piece of furniture, he dragged it towards him, thankful for the wheels that made it easier, throwing himself down into it, groaning as the weight came off his legs.
He shut his eyes on a deep sigh as screamingly tense muscles found release. Nursing his drink and the decanter against his chest, he flopped his head back into the cushiony leather headrest, tilted the chair backwards and swivelled gently from side to side, enjoying the rush from the twin sensations of heat and relief.
Ethan wasn't sure how long he sat there, idly twisting from side to side, his eyes shut, his tired muscles almost jelly now they'd been given permission to relax. He just knew it felt good to be non-weight-bearing.
Bliss. Ecstasy. Paradise.
But he was here for a reasonapart from the damn good whisky. He dragged his eyes open, knowing he couldn't put it off any longer. Finally acknowledging that was exactly what he was doing.
On Leo's desk there was a chart. The chart of a child with a terribly disfiguring condition that Ethan could help.
He could change little Ama's life.
He would change her life.
But Ama's case was complicated in more ways than one. Her condition was complex and would require multiple surgeries to correct.
But that wasn't the issue. Ethan thrived on complex.
It was the strings attached to the case that were the problem. Big, fat strings involving someone from his past and the unholy mess he'd made in his selfish, juvenile need to hurt his brother.
Olivia's charity Fair Go was sponsoring Ama and her mother and an interpreter to travel from sub-Sahara Africa to London and the Hunter Clinic, for surgery and rehabilitation.
And she would be heretomorrow.
Olivia who'd loved him. And he'd thrown it in her face by using her to get back at Leo. Flaunting her in front of his brother, knowing how much Leo had fallen for her, taunting him with the woman he couldn't have.
Olivia had been heartbroken when she'd realised. The look in her eyes that terrible, fateful day He shuddered thinking about it now. The huge row he and Leo had got into, not knowing Olivia was listening to every ugly word. Him admitting that he was only interested in the sexy Aussie doc because Leo wanted her for himself.
It hadn't been truenot really. At the beginning, maybe, but not at that point. He'd enjoyed her company and there'd been something about her that had made him forget all his stuff when he was in her arms. The darkness that had been with him from his teenage years. The anguish over his mother's premature death. His dysfunctional relationship with his father. All had been lifted whenever she'd held him close.
But the damage had been done and his betrayal, his hurting her, had been unforgivable. Toxic. That was the word she'd used to describe his and Leo's relationship just before she'd fled back to Australia. And she'd been right. It had been toxic. And a lot of that had been on him.
But it wasn't any longer.
He'd been so angry and self-destructive back then. Angry at his mother for dying and the ensuing scandal over her infidelities, angry at his father for being weak and taking the easy, boozy way out after Franc-esca's death, and angrier at Leo for playing protector.
Protecting James from himself instead of confronting him over the inept drunk he'd become. And protecting Ethan from his father's wildly fluctuating mental statefrom deep depression to manic ragedenying Ethan the opportunity to vent all his anger, frustration and loss.
Ethan cringed as he thought about what a bastard he'd been. He'd taken what he'd wanted with no regard for Olivia's feelings. Just stringing her along, thumbing his nose at her love, knowing how much Leo had had to grit his teeth every time he'd seen them together.
He'd thought himself so far above love back thenthat he was immune to it. What a fool! It had taken a small, fierce, passionate firecracker of a woman from a foreign war-torn land to teach him how wrong he'd been. Maybe that was his punishment for Olivia?
Learning what love really meant and having it cruelly snatched away.
Ethan took a deep swallow of his drink, beating back memories of Aaliyah. He didn't need that guilt on top of his Olivia guilt tonight.
No whisky bottle would be safe. Olivia
Had she forgiven him? Did he even deserve her forgiveness? He hoped so.
Or at least that they could put the past behind them. Because not only would he be seeing her tomorrow but he'd be working with her too. As a paediatric reconstructive surgeon, Olivia had been given clearance by Leo not only to assist in Ama's surgeries but to scrub in on any of the Hunter Clinic's cases during her stay in London.
The humanitarian side of the clinic, which was Ethan's baby, worked with charities from all round the worldOlivia's charity being just one. Consequently it had a reasonably robust operating schedulemany of the cases were kids. There would be plenty of opportunities for Olivia to keep her skills up to date while she juggled her hosting responsibilities for Ama.
And Ethan knew having another pair of handsskilled handswould allow them to do so much more.
But team work was critical.
He couldn't change what had happened in the past, and he was pretty damn sure she wouldn't want to rehash it either, but he could treat her with the respect she deserved going forward.
He took another sip of his whisky as the questions circled round and round his brain.
Questions he didn't have answers for. Questions that could drive him nuts.
That could drive him to the bottom of Leo's decanter.
But he'd come too close to being his father, to taking the easy way out, a while backhe wasn't going there again.
He sighed and reached for the heavy walnut desk, grabbing hold and dragging the chair closer, trying to use his legs as little as possible. And there it was, right on the edge in the middle of the desk, Ama's chart.
Ethan placed the decanter and his glass on the table and pushed all thoughts of Olivia aside as he opened the chart and started to read.
Olivia Fairchild was late. She checked her watch for the hundredth time as she paid the taxi driver. The cool October evening, a far cry from the heat of Africa, closed in around her as the taxi took off and she turned to face the familiar building on Harley Street.
Late or not, she took a moment to collect herself and clear her throat of the emotion that she'd been battling on the cab-ride. She blinked back stupid tears. Getting Ama and her mother settled into their room at the Lighthouse Children's Hospital had been more emotional than she'd expected. She felt flustered and off-kilter rather than cool and professional, which was what she'd hoped to be when she came face to face with her past.
But Ama had got to her tonightjust as she had from day one. She'd been so apprehensive of her strange new world, and so distressed when her mother had left the room with the interpreter to attend to some paperwork, that Olivia had felt completely out of her depth.
For nine years Ama had known nothing other than a small village in sub-Sahara Africa where she'd been closeted away, not allowed to go to school or play with the other kids because of her disfiguring condition.
London must be terrifying.
Olivia, who had spent a lot of the past six weeks building a rapport with Ama, had tried her best to comfort the girl, but sometimes only mother-love would do and Ama had cried and cried until her mother returned.
And, oh, the way she'd clung had been gut-wrenching!
Olivia had been able to feel the frantic beat of Ama's heart through her painfully skinny ribs as the little girl had held onto her for dear life. And Olivia had clung right back, rocking her slightly, shushing her gently, feeling so inadequate in the face of the girl's anguish.
It had reminded her of the day she'd found Ama and her mother, both wailing and crying in the street, clinging to each other as two men engaged in a heated discussion had grabbed at them, trying to pull them apart. She hadn't been able to bear it.
A passing car hooted, bringing her back to the here and now, and Olivia shivered as the Hunter Clinic came back into focus. She took a deep breath, steeling herself to enter.
Her heart pounded as she mounted the stairs and pushed through the heavy doors. After-hours the clinic was hushed and deserted and she took a moment to absorb it all. Except for the stark whiteness of the updated décor, visible even in the darkened interior, it looked the same as she rememberedexclusive, luxurious, old money. It smelled the same. It felt the same.
And yet it didn't. It was familiar yet not.
Maybe it was because she was different? Not the same starry-eyed Olivia who had trusted her heart to the Hunter boys only to be used in their toxic games and have it crushed into the dirt.
It was warm inside and she undid the toggles on her duffle coat as her boot heels tapped on the exquisite grey and black marble floor on her way to Leo's office. It felt like a lifetime ago now since she'd walked these corridors on her frequent trips to see Ethan.
Olivia's heart skipped a beat as her stride faltered.
No. She would not think about him tonight. She wasn't here to see Ethan. She was here to see Leo.
Ethan would come tomorrow. And tomorrow would be soon enough.
Despite only the most subdued light, coming from lamps placed in discreet alcoves, her feet took her to Leo's office without any real direction from her brain. Once there she didn't stop to give herself time to think or doubt, she just reached up to knock on the door, surprised when it swung silently open under the weight of her closed hand.
For a moment, peering into the sumptuous darkened office, with just a desk lamp illuminating the room, she thought the man sitting at the desk, head bent over a chart, looked like Leo and she smiled.
'Leo,' she called from the doorway, her voice hushed as seemed appropriate in the quietness of the deserted building.
Ethan, who'd been too intent to register the knock, looked up as his brother's name spilled from Olivia's lips, and even a decade down the track he still felt the impact of that mouth.
Wide and sexy, forming a natural pout that had always fascinated him. A mouth he'd kissed.
It was a startling realisation for a man who'd felt dead inside for the past year. And he wasn't sure he liked it.
What the hell was she doing here? Didn't her flight arrive early tomorrow morning?